Fangoria has an interesting article comparing the modern Saw franchise to Friday the 13th from the days of yore. I think the connection is one that is natural, even if subliminally, to many people; I’ve drawn a similar parallel here on this blog, though I chose Michael Myers over Jason for the sheer jumping of the shark the Halloween series accomplished. Anyway, Saw is the horror movie for this day and age. Not since Scream have we had a franchise of such, well, popularity. However, Saw (like F13 before it) is very quickly petering out due to the advent of a new sequel every year. Though the Scream films were progressively less entertaining, they still managed to be all self-aware and postmodern using the rules of sequels and trilogies and stuff, and even then the series had the decency to know when to quit. Oh wait.
Regardless of all that, I think there are a few things in the Fangoria article worth considering. Like the following comment on why F13 eventually started a slow decline:
A common bone of contention among fans of Friday the 13th is the “death” of Jason in part four and the attempt to take the series in a new direction with part five, subtitled “A New Beginning.” This was met with backlash from fans, resulting in Jason’s return in part six to hack and slash his way through sexy co-eds, only this time in full-on zombie mode. In the end, that’s all the fans wanted to see: their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure. The damage, however, had been done, and while part six remains a fan favorite and received favorable reviews, the popularity and financial success of the series began a slow decline.
A loose parallel can be found in the Saw franchise, particularly in part three which concluded with the death of the infamous Jigsaw himself, John Kramer. With part four, much like in the fifth Friday the 13th installment, we’re introduced to a new, replacement killer, with hints and allusions to the original found throughout. Is it any coincidence that both films were some of the franchises’ most poorly received? The appeal of the first film, and by extension Saws II and III wasn’t just in its clever traps, it was the attempt of the filmmakers to inject a story amidst the chaos. Kramer is made to be a highly sympathetic, albeit psychotic, character, with his traps serving as a metaphor for the path his victims have chosen in life. The death of John was the death of the motivation behind the entire series, and thus dooming the series to mindless repetition. This sentiment was expressed by Elizabeth Weizman of the New York Daily News, who considered the conspicuous absence of Tobin Bell from the fifth film to be its biggest drawback, cheapening the series and allowing it to fall into a state of convention.
This touches on a few themes I brought up in my earlier rant on the death of horror, though not (I think) in a good way. In his article Mr. McHargue rightly asserts that it was the fans’ criticisms that caused F13 to ride off the rails; the character of Jason was central, and removing him confounded whatever glamour the series had accrued. Likewise, removing Jigsaw from the Saw films removes a central tether that draws the audience to the films, alienating the fans who have come to know these ambiguous antagonists.
I’ve talked before about how horror as a genre is pretty much crap, and it’s our fault. I am not about to go back on that. The audience’s desire for, as McHargue puts it, “their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure” is a visceral and longstanding form for the genre, and it is what I think we need to move beyond. Do you really need to see Jason and Jigsaw fuck shit up for nine movies, or a new movie every Halloween, or whatever the hell?
The issues with this desire is that these characters, in the end, do not represent healthy urges; no matter how mistreated they were, no matter how sympathetic they are in their backstory, these characters are villains. Jigsaw has the better claim here, since he defends himself with a bunch of philosophical claptrap, but does Jason’s death at the hands of irresponsible camp counselors really justify him killing a bunch of people unrelated to the incident not just once but ten fucking times? These characters do not — cannot — change if the franchise should continue. (Ironically, McHargue references a reviewer who apparently thinks doing away with Jigsaw somehow condemns the Saw franchise to convention — yes, nothing is more tired and convential than plot development, changes in the status quo!) I appreciate a good vengeance story as much as anyone, but there is a point when justice has been served and enough blood has been spilled. If we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Jigsaw or Jason, then there should be a point where they as characters have this realization and settle back into normal life. Of course that won’t happen because it would be 1) fucking ridiculous, and 2) problematic for shitting out a sequel next year.
“Now, Michael,” you are surely saying, “how can you grudge me, the demagogue so reverently referred to as the Masses, my spectacles of vengeance and bloodshed?” Well, the Masses, here’s the tricky part: I don’t begrudge you your spectacles, but I begrudge you your franchises of spectacles. Horror, I think, should simply not be geared toward franchises. I was a little off put by a comment in McHargue’s article, where he claims that Saw serves “as not only a means of introducing Generation Z and the tail end of Generation Y to horror, but also by reinvigorating the popularity and importance of the horror franchise.” Well, I see what he means — but I doubt that the franchise model needed or deserved to be reinvigorated.
You see, if F13 or Saw were limited to one installment, my qualms with them would be nothing. If you have one story about unstoppable vengenace murderer featuring an iconic character, then there you have it. Make of it what you will! But as you strain credulity by widening the circle of carnage beyond all reasonable limits — and convolute the overarcing plot to an unnecessary degree — things get tired, ridiculous, dull. If you attempt to spice up the narrative by changing or killing off the main character, then you lose because the fans won’t respond well. Franchises (unless they have a pre-planned story arc, which I think rarely happens in horror, and anyway wouldn’t be very good if stretched out over roughly a dozen films) are not a good thing. It’s an absolute lose-lose situation, even if you give the audience exactly what they (apparently) want and release a bunch of identical movies, because eventually interest will wane and the continuity will be fucked all to hell.
Which paves the way for a reboot 15 or 20 years down the road.